Elderly Life Satisfaction and Television Viewership: an Exploratory Study

Don R. Rahtz, The College of William and Mary
M. Joseph Sirgy, Virginia Tech
H. Lee Meadow, Bentley College
ABSTRACT - We hypothesized that heavy TV users among the elderly are more dissatisfied with their lives than light TV users. This may be because those elderly who are heavy TV users may cultivate unrealistic beliefs about the material possessions of the average person. Heavy TV users thus may compare their lack of material possessions to their unrealistic beliefs of the average person having material possessions, resulting in dissatisfaction. Since material possessions are highly valued in our culture, these feelings of dissatisfaction may become more global and generalizable to other life domains. An empirical study was conducted using a sample of 788 elderly subjects to test the relationship between the extent of TV viewership and elderly life satisfaction. The results were consistent with the hypothesis. Future research directions are also presented.
[ to cite ]:
Don R. Rahtz, M. Joseph Sirgy, and H. Lee Meadow (1988) ,"Elderly Life Satisfaction and Television Viewership: an Exploratory Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 141-145.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 141-145

ELDERLY LIFE SATISFACTION AND TELEVISION VIEWERSHIP: AN EXPLORATORY STUDY

Don R. Rahtz, The College of William and Mary

M. Joseph Sirgy, Virginia Tech

H. Lee Meadow, Bentley College

ABSTRACT -

We hypothesized that heavy TV users among the elderly are more dissatisfied with their lives than light TV users. This may be because those elderly who are heavy TV users may cultivate unrealistic beliefs about the material possessions of the average person. Heavy TV users thus may compare their lack of material possessions to their unrealistic beliefs of the average person having material possessions, resulting in dissatisfaction. Since material possessions are highly valued in our culture, these feelings of dissatisfaction may become more global and generalizable to other life domains. An empirical study was conducted using a sample of 788 elderly subjects to test the relationship between the extent of TV viewership and elderly life satisfaction. The results were consistent with the hypothesis. Future research directions are also presented.

BACKGROUND

Media critics argue that people's construction of social reality is a function of media exposure. This phenomenon is referred to as the "cultivation hypothesis" in the media literature (see Hawkins and Pingree 1981 for a review). More specifically, media studies related to television (TV) effects have demonstrated that heavy viewers of TV have higher expectations of being crime victims than do light viewers (Gerbner et al. 1980a; Doob and MacDonald 1979). When asked how many older people there are in America, heavy TV viewers report a lower incidence then light TV viewers (Gerbner et al. 1980b).

The cultivation hypothesis suggests that heavy TV viewers my cultivate unrealistic beliefs about people and their surroundings. More particularly, the heavy TV viewers may cultivate beliefs that suggest most people are well-off and enjoy many of the material things in life. To the extent that TV media shows images of materially well-off people, heavy TV viewers may overestimate the material well-being of the average person (Belk and Pollay 1985a, 1986b; Friedman 1985; Richins 1987).

Given that heavy TV viewers have unrealistic beliefs about material possessions and the use of these possessions in personal fulfillment, we would expect that heavy TV viewers would be more likely to experience life dissatisfaction than satisfaction.

This is because social comparison theory (Festinger 1954; Goethals and Darley 1977) tells us that people compare themselves to the average person. The heavy TV viewer may perceive his/her material possessions to fall below his/her belief about the average person's possessions, resulting in dissatisfaction with his/her situation. Given that material possessions are highly valued in American culture (Belk 1984; 1985; Dubois 1955) we should expect heavy TV viewers to feel dissatisfied with their life accomplishments (since these accomplishments failed to produce a level of material possessions exceeding that of the average person).

For the elderly person this dissatisfaction may be more acute than his/her younger counterparts. Studies have shown that (1) elderly consumers are heavy users of mass media for entertainment, news and information search (Comstock et al. 1978; Graney and Graney 1974; Havighurst and Albrecht 1953; Schramm 1969; Stevens 1981), (2) elderly consumers find their portrayal negative and are less than satisfied with how they are depicted (Doolittle 1977; Festervand and Lumpkin 1985; Harris 1975; Jamieson 1978; Samli and Palubinkas 1972), (3) elderly consumers have poor self-images (Davis 1971; Schrieber and Boyd 1980; Smith et al. 1982, 1984, 1985), (4) as consumers age they rely more and more on mass media, particularly TV (Festervand and Lumpkin (1985; Mason and Beardon 1978; Stevens 1981, 1982), and (5} as consumers age they become more accepting of mass media puffery, particularly any associated with advertising, due to declining information processing filtering ability (e.g., Atchley 1972; Botwinick 1978; Long et al. 1980; Neugarten and Havinghurst 1976).

In other words, we postulate the following relationships pertaining to the elderly: (1) Heavy TV users cultivate more unrealistic beliefs about material possessions of the average person than light TV users. (2) Heavy TV users engage in social comparisons more than light TV users, comparing their lack of material possessions to the materially wealthy image of the average person cultivated through TV programming. (3) Heavy TV users feel more dissatisfied than light TV users as a result of this type of social comparison. (4) Heavy >- TV users' dissatisfaction with material possessions are generalized to other life domains resulting in life dissatisfaction, due to cultural valuation of material possessions. These relationships are shown in Figure 1.

These findings concerning the elderly's reliance on TV and being dissatisfied with life can be theoretically explained further by disengagement theory, activity theory, socialization theory, and social breakdown theory. Disengagement theory (Cumming and Henry 1961) posits that society and the elderly enter a process-of normative voluntary mutual withdrawal from one another as a consequence of aging and that this leads to a reduction of social interaction and an increase in personal isolation. Once the social withdrawal is complete a new social equilibrium is established, which both society and the elderly find satisfying. The reliance on mass media, thus is a way to combat total social disengagement and helps in establishing a new social equilibrium (Schramm 1969).

Activity theory (Lemmon et al. 1972) suggests that the elderly are forced to disengage from society through forced social imposition. When faced with this social contraction of life space, the elderly will attempt to find alternative activities to fill the gap created by the forced loss of previous social roles. When activity alternatives are successfully found the elderly achieve a happier and more satisfying life situation. Thus, interactions with mass media provide the major source for activity substitution (Graney and Graney 1974).

FIGURE 1

HOW DOES TV VIEWERSHIP AFFECT LIFE SATISFACTION?

Socialization theory (Dowd et al. 1981; Smith and Moschis 1984; Smith et al. 1982, 1984, 1985) posits that older people, "like their younger counterparts can be socialized" (Smith and Moschis 1984, p. 549). Thus, socialization is a continuous life span learning process, allowing a person to adapt to ever changing life conditions and life experiences by acquiring requisite social stills, and establishing ever changing personal cognitions, attitudes, and behavior. Regardless of the whether or not social disengagement is voluntary or involuntary, the elderly faces increasingly contracted life spaces, and as such one would expect that in order to -adapt many elderly turn to the impersonal learning offered by mass media to make up for the loss of interpersonal social influencing contacts.

Social breakdown theory (Kuypers and Bengston 1973) posits that as a person gets closer to retirement he/she faces ambiguous roles (e.g., 'senior citizen?). With the loss of social contact, this ambiguity actually becomes relatively clear, since the elderly eventually see few or no social/behavioral expectations associated with occupying a "roleless" senior citizen social position (Neugarten et al. 1968). And since this is the image that society projects upon the elderly the result is a greater sense of anomie. Thus, when negatively portrayed on TV programs and its advertising messages, many elderly learn a new sense of self-worth, which in turn causes a decrease in how they perceive their own lives.

A study is reported here to test the relationship between elderly life satisfaction and TV viewership. The mediating theoretical variables shown in Figure 1 will not be tested. They are used only for explanatory purposes only. Future research should be directed to including these mediating variables in a more comprehensive model and subjecting this model to empirical testing.

METHODOLOGY

Sampling

Data for this study were collected via a mail survey questionnaire sent to a random sample of elderly subjects in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. More specifically, a sample of 3700 was drawn through a systematic sampling of a mailing list. The list itself was obtained from a government- sponsored agency. The mailing list of approximately 20,000 contained the names of households in the region with a member residing 60 years of age or older. Eight hundred and five of the questionnaires were returned reflecting a response rate of 22 percent. Seventeen of the questionnaires were unusable leaving 788 cases for data analysis, a 21 percent usable response rate. While the response rate is not high, it is within the expected levels of single mailing consumer surveys (Kanuk and Berenson 1975).

While the study was conducted on a regional basis, the generalizability of the results is considered good. This is because the area of sample covered a three county area and included both rural and urban areas. Furthermore, the area has a demographic profile (more specifically with respect to sex and income) somewhat similar to that of the entire United States. A study conducted by National Planning Data (a local market research firm) using the 1980 U.S. Census provided the following breakdown of income and sex of residents 65 and over. With respect to income, 44.0 percent had an income of less than $15,000/year (the study sample showed 41.0 percent), 26.9 percent had an income between 15,000 and 25,000 (the study sample showed 26.0 percent), 12.9 percent had an income between 25,000 and 35,000 (the study sample showed 14.0 percent), 8.9 percent had an income between 35,000 and 50,000 (the study showed 12.0), and 7.3 percent had an income of 50,000 and over (the study showed 8.0 percent). With respect to sex, 40 3 percent- were males (the study showed 40.2 percent), and 59.7 were females (the study showed 59.8 percent).

Measure of TV Viewership

Respondents were asked to agree or disagree (on a 6-point Likert- type scale) to the following statement: "Television is my primary form of entertainment." This item was imbedded in the context of other psychographic related items. Richins (1987) has reported results severely skewed toward heavy usage for the elderly using a frequency measure. Given this, it was felt that a psychological measure of TV usage would provide a more useful measure of TV viewership and perhaps a more normal distribution of scores than the frequency measure.

Measure of Life Satisfaction

The life satisfaction measure was initially made up of 12 self- report 6-point Likert-type items. More specifically, these were:

I am happier now than ever before (+)

I am content living where I am now (+)

Maintaining my appearance is important (+)

Everything is changing too fast today (-)

My opinion isn't valued by others (-)

I enjoy the physical pleasures of life (+)

Not many people respect senior citizens (-)

I feel old (-)

I often feel lonely (-)

I am in good physical condition (+)

I think about my health alot (-)

I often think about my personal safety (-)

The items in the life satisfaction measure were pooled, and a reliability analysis was conducted on the pooled items. The resulting Cronbach Alpha Coefficient was .6592 (.6559 standardized). The reliability of the life satisfaction scale was judged to be adequate, and thus used for further analysis.

Life satisfaction was correlated significantly and moderately with age (r = -.1309, p = .001, D = 582), marital status (r = .1297, p =.001, n = 593), employment status (r= -.1345, p = .001, n = 588), gross annual income (r = .3013, p = .000, D = 519), and education (r = .2727, p = .000, n _ 576). More specifically, it was found that the greater the life satisfaction score of an elderly respondent, the lower the age, the more likely the elderly respondent is married, the more likely the elderly is employed on a regular basis, the greater the gross annual income, and the higher the educational level. These correlations are consistent with those reported in the life satisfaction literature (see- Diener 1984 for comprehensive literature review), thus providing support for the "nomological validity" of the life satisfaction measure.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

The correlation between TV viewership and life satisfaction among the elderly was found to be -.3396 (p = .000, n = 582). This correlation indicates that the greater the TV viewership, the lower the elderly's life satisfaction. This correlation is consistent with our hypothesis and maybe explained through a combination of the cultivation hypothesis, social comparison theory, and culture theory. That is, the elderly who are heavy TV viewers may well cultivate beliefs about the average person being well-off as measured by material possessions (cultivation hypothesis). They may compare themselves to that conception of the average person, resulting in feelings of dissatisfaction (social comparison theory). Since materialism is a central value in the American culture (culture theory), these feelings of dissatisfaction are expected to be global and generalizable to one's life accomplishments and outcomes. Disengagement theory, activity theory, socialization theory, and social breakdown theory were shown to further reinforce the proposed explanation between elderly's TV viewership and their life satisfaction. Furthermore. the finding of this study reinforces the finding of a previous study conducted by Morgan (1984) relating TV viewership with perceived quality of life using a more general population. Morgan found a significant but low correlations between TV viewership and perceived quality of life (in the magnitude of .16 to .20). The present study shown that is relationship is stronger for the elderly consumers than the general population. Richins (1987) attempted to demonstrate a linkage between TV viewership, materialism, and life satisfaction in a study conducted using a general adult sample. The results of the Richins' study were ambiguous at best. The present study suggests that the relationship between TV viewership and life satisfaction may not be generalizable to the general population but may be limited to the elderly. Future research may focus on these differences.

This study is only an exploratory effort in the sense that future research is warranted. We cannot make definitive statements about the relationship between TV usage and life satisfaction among the elderly due to several limitations inherent in the present study. One limitation involves the construct validity of the life satisfaction scale. One may wonder whether the life satisfaction construct was truly tapped. Although the measure appears to have adequate internal consistency and nomological validity, this may not be definitive enough. Future research may be directed to the development and/or use of a more reliable and valid set of measures. Furthermore, another limitation in this study involves the use of a single indicator measure of TV viewership leaves much room for improvement. Future efforts should concentrate on developing multiple indicators of viewership and then ascertaining their reliability and validity. The Morgan (1984) study, which found a negative but small correlation between TV viewership and perceived quality of life, used a TV viewership measure "On an average day, about how much time, if any, you personally spend watching television?" Since, this study supported a similar hypothesis, one can infer that our TV viewership measure is nomologically valid. Another study limitation is the relatively modest response rate reported. Future effort should directed at generating methods to significantly increase the 22 percent response rate of the present study. For example multiple mailing waves can be employed that might lead to greater and more- representative responsiveness in the target population.

Finally, future research might build upon this study by focusing attention of the mediating theoretical variables discussed in this paper. For example, the construct of materialism plays a central role in explaining the relationship between TV viewership and life satisfaction (cf. Richins 1987). Future research could introduce a measure of materialism into the model. Similarly, measures of material possession beliefs about the average person and social comparison can be included as well. Hence, the "causal" mediating relationships between TV viewership and life satisfaction among the elderly can empirically tested. The public policy implications of the TV viewership/life satisfaction relationship as explained in this paper are clear. To enhance life satisfaction among the elderly, public policy officials may take steps toward insuring that TV depictions of the world and the elderly are less negative and more realistic. Public policy officials may create other leisure and entertainment programs for the elderly, thereby decreasing their reliance on TV as a primary source of entertainment among the heavy TV viewers.

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